“A Perpetual Astonishment”

It was actually still winter when I joined Lakes Environmental Association’s Education Director Alanna Doughty and LEA member Betty for a “Welcome Spring” snowshoe hike at Holt Pond Preserve this afternoon–but really, for western Maine, it was a delightful spring day.

Our hearts smiled as our journey began beside a clump of pussy willow shrubs, so named for their resemblance to tiny cats’ paws. Actually, the white nubs are flowers pre-bloom. Their soft, silvery coating of hairs provides insulation thus protecting these early bloomers from cold temperatures.

That being said, they aren’t protected from everything and if you look, you may see pineapples growing on some. Those pinecone-like structures were created with leaves by a reaction to a chemical released by the larva that allows a gall gnat midge to overwinter on the willows. It’s a crazy world and everything seems to have its place.

Hanging out with the pussy willows were speckled alders, some with protrusions extending from last year’s cones. It was almost like they had tried to flower. In reality, they were alder tongue galls–resulting from a fungus rather than an insect infecting the female catkins. Apparently, the tongue-like growths are green to begin, but transform to orange, red and finally brown. I’ve yet to see it in its early form but time will tell.

We passed a spider walking across the snow and then came upon another member of the lilliputian world–a winter stonefly on the move. How they and the spiders survive the cold and snow is dependent upon special compounds including glycerol, proteins, and sugars that act like antifreeze. By its presence, we knew we were approaching a fast-moving stream.

More evidence of the stream’s presence became immediately apparent when we moved from the field to woods and immediately spied a sign of beaver works.

Stepping down beside the Muddy River, we began to see beaver tree after beaver tree. Each a most recent work.

Alanna stood upon an old dam, but though it was obvious they’d crossed over it by the well traveled trail of tracks, repair work was not yet part of the scheme for the water flowed forth.

We stood there for a few minutes and tried to understand what they had in mind, when one in our group spied the beaver chews in the water–their snack of choice.

We wondered if they were active downstream or up, and decided to follow the trail north.

A few minutes later, we came upon another trail well-traveled and knew that they’d been working in the vicinity.

In the brook, covered with spring ice, which features a different texture than the frozen structures of winter, was a small tree.

And then our eyes followed the beavers’ tracks back and we saw from whence it had been sawn.


And dragged through the snow. In our minds’ eyes we appreciated their efforts.

Still, we didn’t know what the beavers were up to, so we moved on in hopes of learning more about their activities. All the while, there were other things to notice, like the orange brain fungus growing on the inside of a stump. We weren’t the only ones to appreciate it for snowfleas, aka spring tails, also searched the surface.


Since we were beside the river, it might have made sense that we checked out the beaver works via canoe, but . . . the snow is slowly melting and it will be a while before we need to bring our own paddles, personal flotation devices and duct tape (just in case the canoe springs a leak).

From the boat launch we followed the secret trail and made our way out to the red maple swamp.

In a sunny spot we spied a swab of earth–a taste of what is to come. And the ever delightful wintergreen offering the first shade of spring green with a dash of spring pink.

Slowly we made our way back out to the Muddy River, where we stood and looked across at two beaver lodges on the other side. We didn’t dare cross, but from where we stood, it appeared that the lodges may be active given that we could see the vents at the top. It also appeared that they’d been visited, though we weren’t sure if the tracks were created by predators. Was this where the beavers who had been so active downstream were living? Or were these the homes of their parents? Were the new beaver works those of the two year olds who had recently been sent out into the world to make their own way? Our brains wondered and wondered?

We weren’t sure, but with questions in our mind, we moved on toward Holt Pond.

There were other things to see as we walked across the wetland, including the woody structures of maleberry capsules and their bright red buds.

Rhodora, that delightful pink beauty showed us that she’s waiting in wings.

As we made our way back, more wood chips on the ground indicated that a carver of another type had been at work–of the bird type rather than rodent.

To identify it, we looked not only at the shape of the chiseled structure, but also the scat we found among the chips.

Because it was filled with the body parts of carpenter ants and we knew its creator’s name–pileated woodpecker.

And then we found an insect of another type. Why was a hickory tussock caterpillar frozen to a twig? Was it shed skin from last fall? How did the structure last throughout the winter? We left with questions, but gave thanks for the opportunity Alanna provided to share the afternoon wandering and exploring and thinking and looking forward–to spring.

In the midst of our wandering, we did discover a fairy house and suspect that tonight some wild dance moves are on display under the Super Equinox Worm Moon.

“Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment.”

British Author Edith Mary Pargeter, also known by her nom de plume, Ellis Peters (1913-1995)

Change of Pace Mondate

Every once in a while salt air sends a subtle invite through the breeze and we RSVP with this: We’re on our way. We’ll be there in an hour or so.

It took a bit longer than an hour today, but finally we arrived, parked where we weren’t permitted, and followed the path.

Low tide greeted us with all the beach’s layers revealed.

Streamlets flowed forth from our feet to the ocean beyond.

Rounded driftwood carved impressions in the sand.

Waves broke with gentle crests as the tide rolled out.

Water created trees accented with driftwood leaves.

Colors summoned dune-like illusions with visions of water serving as potential mirages.

And then we found a set of tracks.

They led to and danced around a clean plate.

And a diner who celebrated with a song all his own.

There were others, their feathers all a’flutter.

And a few released that showed the pattern of their minute barbs.

My guy and I, though we weren’t the only people on the beach, for stretches felt as if we had the world to ourselves.

While we walked, he paused occasionally to gather some golf balls. (Note: If he tries to sell you one, sniff it first. If it smells like salt, you may want to reconsider–unless it will help your game, of course.)

My souvenir was a link to my mother, who would have collected the same and this piece of seaglass will find a home with those she and I both gathered.

At last, we reached our turn-around point–at the jetty beside the Saco River’s outlet. We know the northern part of the river intimately, but where the brackish water forms as freshwater joins salt, our understanding is less familiar.

It’s been a while since we’ve actually celebrated a Mondate, so it certainly seemed apropos to find a heart in the sand. And to follow my father’s advice long ago to fill the innermost recesses of our lungs with salt air. We did so.

As we enjoyed a change of pace and a change of scenery.

Bear to Beer: St. Patrick’s Day

We drove to O’Lovell in western Maine late this morning with the plan to search for bear trees in an area where I’ve seen them in the past.

All along the main road to the Greater Lovell Land Trust property, Irish flags decorated random telephone poles and even a tree. The latter was our favorite for the person who hoisted it had to climb up the steep snowbank in order to show off the colors of the Emerald Isle.

Braving a thousand bumps, or so it felt as we negotiated potholes, frost heaves, and culvert depressions, we at last arrived at the end of a dirt (read: muddy) road and prepared for a hike up the oxymoron called Flat Hill.

While yesterday’s trek meant slogging through the wet snow, today’s brisker temperature allowed us to stay on top of the wintery surface, though we were thankful for our snowshoes.

Upward we climbed until we reached the coppiced red oaks and knew to turn right, walk off trail and begin our search among the beeches in the forest. You see, I knew there were trees to be found for I’ve seen them before, and I knew the turning point tree, but . . . the last time I looked, I couldn’t locate the trees with the bear claw marks. That, however, is a challenge my guy heartily accepts and so we split up and each set off to check all the trees in the forest. Well . . . almost all.

As is to be expected, my guy covered much more territory at a faster rate than I did and I wasn’t surprised to hear the distant call, “I got one!”

Indeed, he did. And a beauty was it. Can’t you just see the bear shimmying its way up and down the tree–several times over.

In my brain, a bear hug was the real deal from one of the original tree huggers. And I gave thanks for being accused of doing the same.

All the way to the top we could envision the quest for those tiny beech nuts that offered nutrition. Hmmm . . . isn’t it curious to note that the core of nutrition is “nut”? Or is it curious?

From the big tree, we moved up the mountain until we reached its sort of flat top where the view to the west is always a treat. And then we began to look about, for usually there is porcupine sign in the immediate vicinity to enjoy–that is . . . until I offered a porcupine prowl there two weeks ago and all we found were fisher tracks.

Today, however, was different and we found some fresh evidence that the porcupine is still in the area. We knew it by the teeth impressions left behind.

Further evidence was seen in some diagonally clipped twigs, scat, and even a strand of hair! Yes, porcupines have hairy bodies–including their quills. But on their bellies and faces they have a silkier variety–do you see it?

While I looked about the summit for more evidence, my guy stalked about below. Can you see him in the middle of the photo?

Eventually I wandered down to join him, pausing halfway to note some porky tracks leading upward . . . and downward, of course.

Below the ledges we hunted for his den, but found only tracks moving along the edges.

Though we never found the critter that we assume could easily look like a miniature bear if one were to remove all its quills, we enjoyed exploring the territory that is part of his home.

The delightful part of paying attention is the noticing. There were the organ pipes attached to the ledges, their music enhanced by drips onto rock tripe, ferns and mosses.

And an icicle of amber that stood at least two feet long.

Eventually we made our way back up and then down, again bushwhacking to look for more bear trees. We found a couple, but it was the works of others that also garnered our attention, such as this one that decided to split, but then came back together as if it was making up for time spent apart.

We found another tree with a burl that could easily have been mistaken for bear cubs spending time in a nurse tree. Typically, however, mama bear would choose a white pine for it would provide cover for her young ones as she went off to search for food for her brood.

Embedded in the snow was a squirrel drey and we mentally noted its location so we can go back another day after its no longer frozen in place and try to dissect it in hopes of better understanding such a structure.

And we spied a stonefly exoskeleton–an offering of total delight for despite its minute size, its discovery was right up there with the bear hug.

At last we left O’Lovell, with its Irish flags flying in the breeze, and found our way to O’Harrison, where we joined our friends, the O’Wisers for a beer and dinner.

The evening was topped off with Irish music performed by our favorite local acoustic folk band, Bold Riley.

From bear to beer, everyone was Irish today as we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Well, almost everyone–I did wear some orange and donned my Macmillen plaid flannel shirt. O’Macmillen! O’Hayes! O’Bear!

Framed by the Trees

Our journey took us off the beaten path today as we climbed over a snowbank at the end of Farrington Pond Road and onto the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge East. We began at a piece of the parcel neither Pam Marshall or I had ever explored before, which added to the fun. At first, we followed the tracks of a giant, and eventually decided they might have belonged to another human being. Might have. Always wonder.

And then we were stopped in our tracks as we looked up and recognized a Great Blue Heron–or so it seemed in the dead snag that towered over the edge of Farrington Pond. Except for one tiny area of water, the pond is still very much ice covered so it will be a while before this ancestor of the Greats sees her relatives return.

Standing beside the bird-like structure was another that helped us find beauty and life in death.

We peered in, and down, and up, and all around. With each glance, our understandings increased. So did our questions.

There were holes that became windows looking out to the forest beyond.

But those same windows helped us realize they were framed by the results of their injuries. You see, it appeared that a pileated woodpecker had dined on the many insects who had mined the inner workings of the tree. After being so wounded by the birds, the tree attempted to heal its scars as evidenced by the thick growth ring structure that surrounded each hole. Or at least, that’s what we think happened.

To back up our story, we looked from the outside in and saw the same.

We also noted the corky bark with its diamond shapes formed where one chunk met another.

And much to our surprise, we found one compound leaf still dangling. No, this is not a marcescent tree, one of those known to hold its withering leaves to the end of time (or beginning of the next leaf year). But instead, this old sage is one of the first to drop its leaves. So why did one outlast the race? Perhaps to provide a lesson about leaves and leaflets, the latter being the components of the compound structure.

Adding to the identification, we realized we were treated to several saplings growing at the base of the one dying above. By its bud shape and opposite orientation we named it Ash. By its notched leaf scars and lack of hairs, we named it White. White Ash.

Because we were looking, Pam also found a sign of life within. We suspected a caterpillar had taken advantage of the sheltered location, but didn’t know which one.

About simultaneously, our research once we arrived at our respective homes, suggested a hickory tussock moth. Can you see the black setae within the hair?

Pam took the research one step further and sent this: “I read that the female lays eggs on top of the cocoon and then makes a kind of foam that hardens over them so they can survive the winter. How cool is that?” Wicked Cool, Indeed!

We probably spent close to an hour with that tree, getting to know it from every possible angle.

And then it was time to stop looking through the window and to instead step into the great beyond.

We did just that, and found another set of mammal tracks to follow. Tracking conditions were hardly ideal and we followed the set for a long way, never quite deciding if it was a fisher or a bobcat, or one animal traveling one way and another the opposite but within the same path.

Eventually, we gave up on the shifty mammal and made our way into the upland portion of the property where I knew a bear claw tree stood. Pam’s task was to locate it and so she set off, checking all the beech trees in the forest.

Bingo! Her bear paw tree eyes were formed.

It was a beauty of a specimen that reminded us of all the wonders of this place.

From that tree, we continued off-trail, zigzagging from tree to tree, but never found another. That doesn’t mean we visited every tree in the refuge and so we’ll just have to return and look some more.

We did, however, find some scratch marks on a paper birch.

They were too close together to have been created by even a young bear, but we did consider squirrel. Wiping off the rosy-white chalk that coated the bark, we did find actual scrapes below. Now we’ll have to remember to check that tree again in a year or so and see what we might see.

What we finally saw before making our best bee-line out (don’t worry, our Nature Distraction Disorder still slowed us down) was the view of Sucker Brook and the mountains beyond.

At last we pulled ourselves away, but gave great thanks for that ash tree that framed our day and our focus and for all that we saw within it and beyond.

Book of the March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker

A few weeks ago I’d contacted my friend Parker Veitch of White Mountain Mushrooms, LLC, to make sure he was willing to co-lead a couple of fungi walks this summer and in his response he included this paragraph: “I have a book for you. Should I leave it at the office? The first 20 or so pages are a little slow, but I think you will really like it.”  

Like it? I LOVE it. And I haven’t even finished reading it. So you must be curious by now. As I was when I saw it sitting on the table at the Greater Lovell Land Trust office. You see, I was sure the book would be about fungi because Parker is always trying to help me learn about the principal decomposers of the world. Ah, but one should never assume.

May I present to you the Book of March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker by Tamarack Song.

This book is like no other tracking book that I’ve read. As I wrote back to Parker, “Thank you so much for sharing the book with me. I’m in the midst of reading Eager by Ben Goldfarb, The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, which is about Alexander von Humboldt, and a book of essays by E.B. White (thanks Judy and Bob for gifting me that gem), but right now I’m most captivated by the teaching of Tamarack Song and I am going to have to ask Bridgton Books to order a copy for me. I want to be him and have the understandings and slow down and ask the questions he asks. And teach others to do the same.

At first I couldn’t put the book down. But now I’ve changed my tune a bit because I want to savor it. Typically, when I read a book such as this I underline key phrases, write notes in the margin and turn page corners up. But, because I’m only borrowing this copy I’m not doing that. (Did I have you nervous for a minute there, Parker?) And that’s making me soak it all in and savor each chapter more fully than I might.

You see, Tamarack, according to the back cover blurb, “has spent his life studying the world’s aboriginal peoples, apprenticing to Elders, and learning traditional hunter-gatherer survival skills. He has spent years alone in the woods as well as living with a pack of Wolves. In 1987, he founded the Teaching Drum Outdoor School in the wilderness of northern Wisconsin, where he runs the yearlong Wilderness Guide Program.”

In each of the sixteen chapters, Tamarack plays the role of guide, but not by telling. Rather, he takes the reader along on an exploration with one of his students, and encourages all of us to question what we see. In other words, to never assume, which is what I did when Parker first mentioned the book and what I often do when I’m tracking.

Instead, he wants us to notice and think about why the animal might be behaving in a particular manner, even if we know what it is by its tracks and its sign. What’s the rest of the story?

In fact, why did Opossum suddenly appear toward the tail end of the snowstorm on Sunday night?

And why is he in western Maine? How has he survived this winter with its frigid temps (mind you, it’s finally starting to warm up a tad). Where has he been since I last saw his prints in the snow a few months ago? What brought him to our yard again? Does he live under the barn with the rest of the neighborhood?

And what about last night’s visitor, Raccoon. Where has he been all winter? What brought him out? I have to say I wasn’t surprised to see him as once the temps do begin to rise the slightest bit, he appears. I also know that the bird seed attracted him, though he surprised me by not stealing the suet.

Tamarack encourages us to become the animal, especially if we don’t see it, but do see the signs it left behind. Had there been snow on the deck, I imagine I would have recognized the raccoons prints, but I would have wondered about other lines that probably would have appeared. Having the chance to watch Raccoon as I did, I now know that those lines would have been his nose and tongue as he tried to vacuum the seeds.

But then there was Raccoon’s coloration. Why the mask? Why the striped tail? I have so much to think about and learn.

And then late today, I headed out the door through which I’d taken those photos the previous two nights, and noted the Hemlock tree that Porcupine had denuded this winter. It used to be one of my favorites in the yard. But today it occurred to me that though we pay taxes on this property and try to “maintain” it, it really isn’t ours. It never has been. It belongs to the animals and the trees, and yes, even the fungi. Maybe especially the fungi.

One thing I have noticed is that all of Porcupine’s activity has aided Deer who also stops by daily.

As I continued over the stone wall, noting the six or seven other Hemlocks Porcupine has visited, a shape high up in one tree caught my attention.

I moved under Hemlock for a better look. Well, not all the way under, for I sometimes know better than to stand below such an exhibit.

As I looked with the aid of a telephoto lens, I noticed that Porcupine had apparently dined briefly and then fell asleep. Hmmm. I know some people who do that.

But the sight of Porcupine got me thinking–was this friend who lived under the barn a he and not a she after all?

And how did he/she sleep as the breeze swayed that not so thick Hemlock bough upon which Porcupine was balanced?

I did gain a better appreciation for the various types of hair that cover Porcupine’s body.

But still, so many questions, some that haven’t even formed in my mind yet.

I give thanks to Tamarack and his stories within Entering the Mind of the Tracker for that. Now I must practice the art of slowing down and paying more attention.

And I give special thanks to Parker for the offering of this book. In many ways, he emulates Tamarack Song, for both are hunter-gatherers and Parker understands the ecological systems in a way I will never know. At less than half my age, he has already slowed down and learned to pay attention.

To be attuned to the hidden nature–that is my wish. To that end, I shall purchase a copy of this book. And hope you will consider it as well.

Book of March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker: Native Practices for Developing Intuitive Consciousness and Discovering Hidden Nature.

Entering the Mind of the Tracker: Native Practices for Developing Intuitive Consciousness and Discovering Hidden Nature, by Tamarack Song, Bear & Company, a division of Inner Traditions International, 2013.

Seeking Change

I wasn’t going to pre-hike Loon Echo Land Trust’s Bald Pate Mountain Preserve in South Bridgton today to prep for a climb there tomorrow because I figured there wasn’t really much to see except the snow. But, at the last minute, it felt like the right thing to do.

And, of course, it was. As I headed up the Bob Chase Trail, so named for the man who was the driving force behind the land trust, and its public face for fifteen years, I noted those who’d passed through the woods at some point within the last couple of days, including snowshoe hare, foxes and coyotes. Oh, and domestic dogs a many.

There were the views to admire as well, including this one from three quarters of the way up, where Mount Washington sits in the saddle of Pleasant Mountain.

The fun thing about a telephoto lens is that one can bring those distant peaks into view. Doesn’t the cellphone tower roadway up Pleasant Mountain make it look like you could walk directly onto Mount Washington? And can you see the weather station at the top of Mt Wash?

It doesn’t take long to reach the summit of Bald Pate where the view encompasses Hancock Pond in Denmark (Maine) and I was beginning to wonder what I might share as signs of spring, since despite the frigid temps and snow depth, we are on the cusp. Drive down any western Maine road and you can bear witness to that. The frost heaves and potholes have made themselves known for the past several weeks.

But, then I looked up–at the leaning Pitch Pine beside the Eastern White Pine.

And there was my answer! Pitch Pine cones take two years to mature and upon the tip of each scale is a pointed and curved prickle.

They open gradually but depend upon fire for their seeds cannot be released until they are heated to an extremely high temperature.

That being said, this is the only native pine that will resprout when damaged.

While the cones of the Eastern White Pine where almost nowhere to be seen, on a Pitch Pine they may remain for 10 – 12 years.

The needles are bundled in packets of three–making it easy to remember its name: Pitch–three strikes you’re out!

Another easy way to identify Pitch Pine is to look for needles growing right out of the bark–both on the trunk and branches.

I always think of it as our bonsai tree for though it can stand straight and tall, on mountain tops it takes on a contorted structure. The “pitch” in its name refers to its high resin content, thus making it rot resistant.

Though not located at the summit, I hope I remember to share my favorite evergreen found on this property. Meet Jack Pine. It doesn’t typically grow in our area, but there are two along the trail and either they were planted or they came in on a skidder during a previous logging operation and planted themselves.

As I’ll surely share tomorrow, I love mnemonics and that’s what helps me remember the names of the various evergreens. You see, Jack Pine has bundles of two short needles: think Jack and Jill.

Its cones also take two years to mature and tend to be slender and curved.

I was thinking that with the three varieties of White, Pitch, and Jack, there must be a fourth and bingo–just as I returned to the parking lot I found it: a young Red Pine with its needles of two. (I used to think it had three for R-E-D, just as White has five for W-H-I-T-E or M-A-I-N-E for it’s our state tree, but I used to think incorrectly!)

It wasn’t just the pines, however, that drew my attention. The tree buds are swelling and suddenly quite noticeable. Each bud, like this beech, which may contain miniature leaves or flowers, is covered with scales, which in themselves are actually modified leaves.

By May those scales will curl back and eventually fall off as the leaf and or flowers emerge, but today I found a couple that decided to get a head start. It’s the same every year–there are always a few in the crowd who want to be first. Do they survive? One of these days I’ll mark one and check back on it.

I did see several beech buds that had curly topped heads, a site I’d not seen before. This will certainly be a point of discussion tomorrow as we try to solve the mystery.

And there was an oak that also wanted a head start. Perhaps it’s because they’re located on a mountain and closer to the sun?

Some of my favorite finds included the striped maple buds and their subtle spring colors.

And then I found red maple twigs on the ground. That, too, will become a subject of further research on our walk. I suspect I know why they were on the ground, but we’ll see what conclusions the participants draw.

And then, and then, because I was looking, I found a couple of other surprises. This one is the cocoon of a Polyphemus Moth. Check out how it wrapped itself in the leaf. And can you see the silky outer layer of the cocoon located within?

And another–a Promethea Moth. Its cocoon was attached to the branch by a strong peduncle or stem and it had incorporated the curled red oak leaf. Talk about camouflage–at first I thought it was just a marcescent leaf that had withered but not fallen yet.

Our tour will include other flyers as we’ll take a closer look at the tracks and wing marks in the snow and try to figure out what the story was behind them.

And speaking of stories–many a trail features such a sign left behind accidentally by a hiker who lost a bit of traction when the Yaktrax fell off. Any takers? This one has been on the stump for a while so I think it’s fair game if you need one.

Jon Evans of Loon Echo and I plan to take the group to the summit and then find our way to the Foster Pond Outlook, where the stone cairn that’s usually three or four feet tall is barely a memory right now.

About two hours after we start, we’ll lead the group out, and if the sun is shining much as it did today, the trees’ shadows will bridge the gap between winter and spring and help those who are seeking change bring it into focus.

I feel honored that Jon invited me to help him lead this one for it’s in conjunction with the Lake Region campaign called Bring Change 2 Mind. The group focuses on encouraging conversation and ending the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Our aim tomorrow will be to discuss and reflect on how time spent outdoors can encourage positive mental health and well-being.

It may be too late to sign up, but here are the details just in case: Hike for Mental Health.

Even if you can’t join us, I hope you’ll head outdoors and find the change you seek.

For Whom The Crows Caw

At 6am, a flock of crows outside our bedroom window drew me out of bed. There were three birds in the quaking aspen by our back deck, and all were squawking as they stared at the ground.

I peeked about, but saw nothing. That is, until I went down to the kitchen and looked out the door.

That’s when this set of tracks drew my attention. It took a moment for my sleepy brain to click into gear, but when it did I began to wonder why the critter had come to the back door and sashayed about on the deck. Typically, her journey takes her from under the barn to the hemlock stand in our woodlot, where she visits several a night before returning to her den. I say she for two reasons. “She” includes “he” so I can’t possibly be wrong and it’s my understanding that the males of this particular species are more likely to spend the day outside than the female. She returns home every morning and I never see her. Until . . .

This morning for when I stepped into the summer kitchen that serves as my office, there she was in the corner, near her entryway to her under-barn den. And numerous other sets of her tracks decorated the snowbank.

The birds continued to scold, but not quite as vehemently as they had ten minutes earlier. And the snow continued to fall. Why hadn’t she headed down under?

The thing about porcupines is that they are rather lackadaisical, so maybe she didn’t care about the birds?

My interest in her was far greater I’m sure than she cared and so I stood and watched every move. And noted that in her dance she’d also crossed over the potting table that’s almost hidden by the snow. Why so much movement for such a slow-moving critter? Was it because of the birds? And why did they care about her presence?

Eventually, she did what I expected and disappeared under the corner between the barn and shed.

And so I headed out the door, where I discovered even more tracks. It’s not like its mating season, for porcupines mate in the fall. So why all this movement, including a visit to the grill. Was she pacing?

Peering toward the barn, I couldn’t see her, but I did hear some mini-grunts coming from the corner.

And then she emerged and I headed back in to give her space. Check out those quills. Did you know that they are a form of hair. In fact, from Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious Day-by-Day, I learned that a porcupine has five forms of modified hair–each with its own purpose: dark, woody underfur serves as insulation, which is important as she journeys outside her den every single night no matter the weather or temperature; long guard hairs sensitive to touch that help her maneuver; stout whiskers also sensitive to touch; short, soft bristles on her tail’s underside provide stability when she grips bark; and then there are the roughly 30,000, yes 30,0000, quills that cover all but her face, ears, and part of her belly.

It’s those 30,000 quills that provide me with the most awe. So here’s another “did you know” fact: Within one square inch on her back, she has 100 quills. I got to thinking about that recently and cut out a square inch (well, sorta as it’s not exactly straight) of material that I glued to the top of a Ball jar.

And then I filled it with 100 toothpicks left over from a Valentine’s Chocolate Fest the PTA put on when our sons were in elementary school.

One hundred quills/square inch. Talk about prickly! Of course, she looses some especially when she squeezes into tight places, like under the barn. And others detach easily when touched (no, porcupines do not shoot quills).

There’s also her coloration to consider. Like a skunk, the black and white of the quills should be a STOP sign to her predators, who are colorblind as well as nocturnal. BEWARE is subtly written in that black line up the middle of her tail that is bordered in white.

After we’d spent almost an hour together, sometimes with window glass and a screen between us, my porcupine finally disappeared under the barn. And so I stepped into her space for a closer look. Notice the mud and scat in her track. She is the pigpen of the woods who scats and urinates at her den entrance, which perhaps helps provide further insulation.

Scat Happens! 75 – 200 times per day does she eliminate and depending on what’s she’s feeding on determines its structure. Of late, it’s the bark and twigs of hemlocks that constitute the fibrous structure. I’ve heard them described as macaroni or cashews. I prefer to think of her scats as commas, perhaps indicating a brief pause in her routine.

As strict herbivores, porcupines have strong, flat molars that are good for grinding plant material. This is the skull of a beaver, but it provides a good example for a porcupine’s check teeth are similar.

Also from the beaver skull are these prominent incisors. The difference is that a porcupine’s incisors are a bit thinner. For both, the front surface is enamel, while the back is a softer dentine. Their incisors are rootless and grow continually–up to twelve inches per year. Gnawing, therefore is rather important to wear down those chisels.

She’s managed to maintain normal dental wear by working on this hemlock in the corner of our yard and others in our woodlot.

As the day progressed, I wandered around looking for her tracks and those of any others. Strangely enough, she didn’t visit the hemlock last night, but rather checked on the sugar maple in our front yard–perhaps a sign that the season is changing and she’s ready to feast on some sweet buds for a while.

She also circled the barn in a random style. Was she seeking other entryways that are now well hidden below the snow? What was she thinking? Was she thinking? Or acting by instinct? I didn’t see any predator tracks to speak of, but perhaps there was an aerial predator she strived to avoid?

I don’t know. What I do know is that because I climbed up the snow mound, I discovered that she’s been sharping her teeth on the barn clapboards. And where the corner between the shed and barn has long had a cut-out presumably created by her and probably her ancestors, it appeared today that she’d munched a wee bit more and come spring’s meltdown, we’ll be surprised by the damage. My guy reminded me that she and her family members have been dining below the barn for more than the 26 years that we’ve lived here and the structure’s integrity has long been compromised.

As the snow slid off the barn roof, the hole began to disappear.

Until finally, it was only a memory.

I went out again at dusk in hopes of seeing the grand lady dig her way out, but her time schedule was not the same as mine. In the morning, however, I’ll check on her trail as I do every day. I can’t wait to see where she went–will she give me any more clues as to her strange behavior this morning? Was it a reaction to the crows? I don’t know.

But this I do know: when the crows caw–listen. And look. And wonder.